Sunday, January 31, 2010

Hoar Frost

After a night inside the cabin, the dogs are waiting impatiently by the door for their walk.  Their excitement is  "cooled" when they hit the 9 degree air but they plunge ahead into the snow, driven by physiologic needs that come from 10 hours without a tree.
Snow covers the ground except for where yesterday's tire track has exposed the gravel drive.  Their needs met, the dogs are tugging me back towards the warm cabin, but there on the drive lie delicate crystals of hoar frost.  The magical appearance of these small branching crystals is lost on them.
Whether this evaporated from a  lake or a distant ocean,  these water molecules traveled in the air unseen except as clouds until they suddenly found themselves transformed into delicate crystals hanging on small rocks in a deep valley.  The moist air, touching on the much colder frozen ground created these tiny icy fragments which never condensed into water.
According to Wikipedia"Frost is the solid deposition of  water vapor from saturated air. It is formed when solid surfaces are cooled to below the dew point of the adjacent air."  Not particularly poetic but scientifically accurate.  "If a solid surface is chilled below the dew point of the surrounding air and the surface itself is colder than freezing, frost will form on the surface. Frost consists of spicules of ice which grow out from the solid surface."
There are many kinds of frost.  If the freezer door isn't tightly closed, you get frost (and a few frostier words from your wife when she defrosts it.)  Hoar frost-scientifically called radiation frost-forms on the ground or other solid objects that are below the freezing point.  Cold but clear nights like last night, with its bright full moon, let heat escape from the ground.  Flood frost refers to this cold air which then moves downhill into valleys such as ours on Bull Creek, the perfect setting for this hoar frost.

A polar opposite (pun intended) condition can produce frost flowers that occur when there is a sudden freezing spell  but the ground is not already frozen. The freezing air forces out water contained in the plant stem into long frozen ice ribbons.  (See the December 5, 2009 blog.)
Photographing these delicate little crystals, I think back to Bill Bryson's words in his wonderful book, A Short History of Nearly Everything.
"Of the 3 percent of Earth's water that is fresh, most exists as ice sheets.  Only the tiniest amount- 0.036%- is found in lakes, rivers and reservoirs, and an even smaller part- just 0.001% exists in clouds or vapor."
How fortunate to have these crystals of frozen water vapor visit my drive.

Witch Hazel

Out for a ATV cruise in six inches of snow, my face masked against the twenty degree wind, the last thing on my mind was looking for blooming flowers.  Barb had me stop at the creek crossing, and sure enough, there were tiny yellow petals with a red base, clustered on bare shrub branches.  It was Ozark witch hazel announcing the beginning of a new year.
Witch hazel come in two varieties in the Ozarks, shrubs which rarely grow into small trees and tend to be found growing in gravel and rocky stream beds and along streams.  These are Ozark witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) that Barb planted several years ago along the graveled riparian edge of Bull Creek.  The scientific name is unusually descriptive.  Hamasmelis means "together with fruit," describing the unusual appearance of next year's leaf buds appearing at the same time as the flowers and fruit.  It is also called Winterbloom in honor of the flowers which can appear on the bare stems in the dead of winter.  The species vernalis or 'spring' refers to its being the first woody species to bloom in the year.
It's cousin, Eastern witch hazel (H. virginiana) is the last woody species to bloom in the year, late fall or early winter.  Its flowers are yellow and the petals are longer.  The fruit of both species form a hard woody capsule which splits open in the fall, about eight months after flowering, ejecting one or two hard black seeds "forcibly discharged to a distance of up to 30 feet."*   Another name for the shrub is "Snapping Hazel".
You may have come across "witch hazel" on the pharmacy shelves.  An astringent compound extracted from the leaves and bark is used in aftershave lotions and to shrink hemorrhoids, (although thankfully in totally separate compounds.)

A good gallery of pictures can be found at the bottom of this Wikipedia page.
*Kurz, Don, Shrubs and Woody Vines of Missouri, 1997

Friday, January 29, 2010

Fruit in a Cave

Report from George Lanz:
"While performing a bat survey at Breakdown cave on January 24, I stumbled upon this gorgeous mushroom formation. The picture is fascinating! If you look closely you will make some interesting observations.
First, the mushroom is growing on what appears to be a walnut or hickory(?) shell. Second, there seems to be a web just above it. It appears that a troglobitic arachnid is perhaps feeding on terrestrial insects living on a husk (or troglobitic insects that are feeding on the husk) carried in by another animal."
(Troglobitic refers to small cave-dwelling animals that have adapted to their dark surroundings)
"This shell was found a couple hundred feet inside the cave in a narrow belly crawl passage. You can use the approximate size of the shell to determine the size of the tiny fruiting bodies.  I think the pictures are fascinating but my actual motivation for passing this along is hopefully there may be someone who might be able to help me identify this specimen. So far it's been a shot in the dark, maybe someone can shed a little light on this - no pun intended."

Since this was in a protected research cave, George needed to leave it untouched.  He sent it to the rest of the Master Naturalists and we sent it around to several people to get an ID.  Mark Bower, a Bull Creek amateur mycologist and photographer, whose books on Bull Creek Fungi I-III many of you have seen, has identified it as Hymenoscyphus fructigenus.

A great web site for any fungus is Michael Kuo's description* fits George's specimen perfectly.

"This tiny cup fungus competes with Bisporella citrina for the honor of being the smallest mushroom treated at MushroomExpert.Com, with caps maxing out at 4 mm. Growing in clusters on beech nuts, hickory shells, and acorns, Hymenoscyphus fructigenus is often found fruiting alongside Mycena luteopallens--a tiny gilled mushroom that seems enormous by comparison, since a single hickory shell can hold dozens of specimens of Hymenoscyphus fructigenus."

You can read more about this at " *Kuo, M. (2004, February). Hymenoscyphus fructigenus. Retrieved from the MushroomExpert.Com Web site:

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Ultralights and Whooping Cranes

Marlyss Simmons put me onto a story on NPR about using ultralight aircraft to teach whooping cranes to migrate.  This has been successful in increasing the Eastern US population from zero to 100 over 9 years.  You can read or listen to the story at this NPR site.

While you are at it, you might check out the story of how song bird migration is being traced using a tiny transmitter attached to the birds back.  Apparently it only transmits and doesn't serve as a GPS or sattelite radio (yet).  Go to this site.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Preserving our bees

You probably have heard of the problem of declining bee populations and the implications for future pollination.  The Springfield News Leader had a nice summary of information and suggestions for what you can do.  This link to the article by Mark Bernskoetter, Master Gardener, was sent to me by our partners at Friends of the Garden.

Evolution by Bird Feeder

I tend to think of evolution of a species as an event of thousands of years.  A recent study suggests that blackcaps, a Central European warbler have shown evolutionary changes over the last 50 years, possibly because of people feeding birds!
Traditionally their summer migration has been to Spain, but some blackcaps have been lured to bird feeders in Britain where they breed with others and over winter there.  Now German researchers are observing significant anatomical differences between the two populations.  Their British cousins wings are rounder and they have longer narrower beaks--"the better to eat from bird feeders" my dear!
Is this evolution-by-human a problem?  The experts feel not, for the British variety no longer have to make the long migration twice a year.  But now for the big question.  Do they sing with an accent?  That remains to be determined, old chap.
For the whole story and pictures go to

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Importing Invasive Bugs

According to the January 15th Wall Street Journal, 30 new invasive insects are discovered annually.  The increased rate is a byproduct of our increasing global trade and transportation.  The economic impact in the US is estimated at $133.6 billion including "control and prevention such as pesticides, inspection programs at ports and damage to crops."
There have been an estimated 50,000 species of plants, animals and insects introduced through our history as a country.  Many well known examples such as starlings, thistle, and zebra mussels have become a part of everyday life.
Although the current article highlights hemlock woolly adelgids which are destroying the hemlocks in the great Smokey Mountains, it applies just as well to the challenge we have in protecting trees and inspecting imports from organisms such as the Emerald Ash Borer.  We are all interconnected on the same planet in spite of our perceived regional and national differences.

Liking Lichen

The Springfield Chapter's own lichenologists presented an extensive introduction to lichens of the Ozarks this Monday night.  The Darrel and Pat Blech were a tag team with Nancy and Hammons Schanda in explaining the symbiotic relationship which produces organisms covering eight percent of the Earth's land mass.  Lichen are found around the globe in diverse environments such as deserts and the Antarctic.  We are most familiar with those occurring on trees, dead wood, and rocks.
Filamentous fungi provide the structure for algae or cyanobacteria  which photosynthesize the energy that the fungus requires.  These fungi require the photosynthesis to live, essentially creating a completely new organism, while the algae can survive on their own. 
The role of the humble lichen in plant succession, turning rocks slowly into soil, and providing food and shelter to wildlife widely appreciated.  They have been an important source of dyes, used in the manufacture of perfume, and medicinal uses are being explored.  You gotta love those little lichen.

Monday, January 18, 2010

This Bat is No Sucker

As reported in the National Geographic Daily News, the sucker-footed bat of Madagascar is no sucker.  Of 1200 bat species, only six roost hanging head up.  This bat was so named because of its ability to hang on slick leaves, a trait attributed to having suction cup like pads on its feet.
Not so, says a recent study.  Researchers used metal plates with tiny holes to spoil any suction effect and the bats hung on fine.  They use the same surface tension of water that "allows flies to hang on to smooth surfaces like glass ceilings … or wet paper to stick to your windshield."
Furthermore, they describe why they have to roost upright and how they let go.  The whole story is including videos is available at this Discover Magazine site.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Dolphins Learned a New Fishing Technique

I tend to think that feeding strategies are somehow inherent in different species.   As an example, humpback whales use bubble netting bubble netting to corral their schools of fish to feed on, a well known technique that is unique to them and only those in certain areas.  How did they develop the technique?  Surely there was once a whale that saw that bubbles spooked their prey and eventually developed the trick of blowing bubbles in a column to trap them.
Bottlenosed dolphins frequently feed communally by scaring their prey fish into a tightening circle.  A single pod of bottlenosed dolphins has discovered a new technique which gives them a competitive edge and an entertaining way of "catching dinner on the fly".  They stir up clouds of debris from the shallow ocean bottom in a constricting circle.  The panicked fish leap out of the water and the dolphins catch them in the air.  Seaworld, eat your heart out.
As the site says, "Another awesome thing about this technique is that only one female in the pod can create this ring, and it's always anti-clockwise."  Leave it to an intelligent female to find an easier way to fix dinner!  Watch this dramatic video.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Animals That Photosynthesize?

We all were taught that only plants have chlorophyll and get their energy from the sun by photosynthesis.  Right?  Now wrong!

A green sea slug living in the salt marshes of New England and Canada apparently have stolen the genes of algae they have eaten.  They are the only know multicellular animal capable of producing chlorophyll.  Consequently, they are able to survive months with just sunlight alone.  They can even pass on this gene to their offspring, although the kids have to algae to get enough chloroplasts to start photosynthesis on their own.  The story is at this Live Science link.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Parking Lot Pollution

Springfield City Council has been pondering the fate of coal tar sealant on our parking lots over the last month.  Coal tar was the first carcinogen, identified with scrotal cancer in chimney sweeps in the 1770s.  We are now recognizing the risks of coal tar sealant which is washed off pavement into our streams and lakes.  City Council will be hearing more testimony on the subject as reported in the News Leader.
Now there is more evidence that it is commonly tracked into homes where it can contact children playing on their carpets.  Read more in this news link.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Rules of Latitude

This from the Chert Glades Chapter meeting, thanks to Jeff Cantrell of MDC.

Ever notice how Alaska claims bigger mammals than the lower 48 states?  Maybe, just maybe, they are right!  Here are two rules to know.

Bergmann’s Rule  Latitudinal based size differences:  We see this with a large variety of mammals and birds.  Animals of the same species will be larger in their population range closer to the pole.  Example, Canadian moose are larger than moose living in Minnesota.

A good explanation is a larger-sized animal produces less surface area per unit of weight, and the animal loses body heat through its body surface so it just makes sense.  Thus, a bigger animal can tolerate the cold better.

Allen’s Rule:  Mammals in colder climates often have shorter extremities (ears, tails, and legs). It is the same principle as above, basically about body heat. It may really be seen with in different animals instead of individuals in the same species.

Think about the ears of a fennec fox or jackrabbit, for them heat loss is important to survive in a hotter climate vs. a pika with its little round ears.

Note to myself:  After looking in the mirror this morning, it is probably time for me to move to Texas.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Feel like hibernating?

If you have been hibernating during this long cold snap, you are not alone.  Lily the bear is starring in her own reality TV show with live video feeds from her hibernation den in Ely, Minnesota.  She is expecting a little one pound bundle of joy which should be born soon, maybe on your screen!
The web cam is live 24 hours a day.  The camera transmits in color by day and produce infrared images at night.  A motion sensor will trigger video and sound transmission when there's activity. Otherwise, it will send stills.
The feed is available on the North American Bear Center's Web site at

Friday, January 1, 2010

Saving the Prairies

There was a time when much of the land North and West of Springfield was prairie extending as far as the eye could see.  Henry Rowe Schoolcraft looking just west of the James River around what is now Sunshine described it this way in 1818:
"The prairies, which commence at the distance of a mile west of this river, are the most extensive, rich and beautiful, of any which I have ever seen west of the Mississippi River.  They are covered by a coarse wild grass, which attains so great a height that it completely hides a man on horseback riding through it.  The deer and elk abound in this quarter, and the buffaloe is occasionally seen in drives upon the prairies and in the open highland woods."
Almost two centuries later, most of these lands have been developed, plowed or converted to fescue.   It takes a lot of effort to maintain the few remaining prairies in a world of crops and invasive species.  The Springfield Plateau Master Naturalists work with the Missouri Prairie Foundation to preserve these special areas for future generations.

Joe Kleiber and Buck Keagy recently spent the day assisting with a prescribed burn to maintain the Penn-Sylvania prairie in Dade County.   Joe had previously spent an two evenings blackening burn lanes around the edge of Schwartz Prairie, and finished the evening of December 1 by helping with that prescribed burn.  Pictures can't do this justice but we will still try.  For more information on these and other prairies, check out the Missouri Prairie Foundation.